We were sitting at Joanne's apartment the other day going over our plans for this year's Women Entrepreneurs Festival.
Our conversation eventually turned, as it does when women meet to talk about business, to our kids. And then we both had seen something in the paper we thought was the saddest thing we ever read. Somewhere in all the mostly justified and some over-the-top tributes to Steve Jobs was this statement. When asked why after a lifetime of refusing all comers, he had asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography and spent 40 hours in interviews. He said he wanted his kids to know him and why he did what he did. Among other things, you might wonder why he didn't just spend those 40 hours with his kids. We both thought if that were us, we'd consider our lives a total failure.
More Magazine just came out saying that women seem to be less ambitious than they were ten years ago. That's the headline. The story reveals that they value their time as much as money. You may not make partner if you say you want to go to your kids' Halloween parade or be home in time for dinner. And you may not be one of the masters of the universe at a too-big-to-fail financial institution. But, because of the infrastructure of technology, you may be able to start-up your own business. Make a difference. Have a balanced life. Define what it means to have it all on your own terms.
This is the second year we've put on the Women Entrepreneurs (WE) Festival, under the auspices of the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) where Nancy teaches. Our goal has been to celebrate the blooming and booming in start-ups in New York and around the country founded and run by women. And we also want to create a forum for women already in the game to connect with pre-entrepreneurs, including students. We know from studies that one key differentiator between men and women entrepreneurs is that women needed more encouragement to take the leap. We thought -- and we still think -- that some of that is due to the fact that men have such pervasive networks that they are, like air, invisible. First, there's the network of just being male. VC funding of companies started by women is around 2% of their total investments. We designed the WE Festival to promote what we really wanted to happen: that the participants would stay in touch, create their own close-knit network. And that worked beyond our dreams. They have been in constant contact on a list serve, have helped each other find lawyers, programmers, interface designers. And have offered numerous "Atta Girls" when a business was launched (close to 10 since last year) babies, and other important life milestones were celebrated.
This year's WE Festival's theme is "Making It." There are six panels with five entrepreneurs on each: taste makers, change makers, community makers, knowledge makers, makers of stuff, art makers. The women range in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties. Some have left the financial services world to do something on their own. We have noticed a thread that seems to weave through all the women-owned businesses that we have considered, whether it's a filmmaker using a documentary as a platform to launch education programs and activism (Jane Wells, 3Generations) or a designer launching an online market for well-designed products for the aging and disabled (Susy Korb, OMHU).
The thread is, indeed, very womanly: taking care of others, saving time, lightening the load of chores, making room for delight. In this way today's entrepreneurs follow in the footsteps of women inventors of the past. Not surprisingly, women invented the cooking stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and ironing board. But also Kevlar, the Apgar test, circular saw, Scotchgard, fire escapes, liquid paper, the windshield wiper, the life raft, and the first software for computing. One also developed a self-cleaning house, but it has never received a patent. We're waiting for that one!
When putting together this year's panel, we were looking for disruptive businesses. The best example is our keynote speaker, Arianna Huffington, who has caused a seismic shift in journalism. Others may not be as public or earthshaking, but they are doing business in a different way. Jennifer Hyman, founder of Rent the Runway, enables women to rent designer clothes for fancy occasions, so you don't have to spend a bundle on something you wear once. Like men rent tuxes. Erin Newkirk, founder of Red Stamp, dedicated to 'elevating everyday correspondence with style and grace.' In other words, classic stationery and invitations in an email world. Edwina vonGal, a successful landscape designer who brought her considerable skills into the dying Azuero Peninsula in Panama to help educate locals about the importance of preserving their land, to developers about sustainable development -- it's a slow process, but where there was desert, plants are growing again. These are just a few who will be joining us at the WE Festival this January. There's also an investor's panel -- all women.
In the past, women had a dilemma that no man really had. Have a career or a family. Margaret Mead said in a famous interview with James Baldwin decades ago, "Wouldn't it be strange to hear a man say, 'I want to be a doctor, unless I get married and have children'?" What we hope to inspire with the WE Festival are groups of women at all stages of their careers and in all their roles who can define clearly what they want in their lives, find and follow their passions, design a structure around them that allows for both a rich career and family life -- strike out on their own, with a little help from their networks. And leave time for an occasional morning chat with a friend over coffee.
Nancy Hechinger teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
Joanne Wilson is the author of the blog, Gotham Gal.
The Women Entrepreneurs Festival will be held in New York City at ITP, January 17 & 18, 2012. Space is limited. Applications are open until November 11, 2011. (itp.nyu.edu/we/2012)
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